How do we become a healthy church? Start with the preaching.

(This post was originally posted to https://www.warriorcreek.org/pastor-s-blog, used with the author’s permission)

Last week we asked the question, “What is a healthy church?” We begin answering that question today. Inherent in this question are two truths. One truth is that a church can be unhealthy. That is, a church can exist in a state of illness. Not unlike human beings with sickness, the church can exist though hindered through ill health. The second truth is that a church can be healthy. That is, the church can do what is necessary to be healthy.

For a variety of reasons, churches are in poor health. We begin to address these issues with the matter of preaching. Preaching is defined as “The announcing of the good news of God by his servants through the faithful revelation of God’s will, the exposition of God’s word and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[1] In this definition we have three aspects:

  • Announcing of the good news (i.e., the gospel)
  • Exposition (i.e., unfolding) of God’s Word
  • Proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God

This definition also provides us with the various parts of preaching: vocal proclamation (“announcing”), focused on the discussion and application of the Word (“exposition”), and the Person of preaching (“of Jesus Christ”).

While we could easily devote an entire series to preaching (a goal that I eventually would love to undertake), we will focus our attention on the second aspect. We will deal with the first mark that Dever discusses in his book 9 Marks of a Healthy Church.[2]

Dever writes, “The first mark of a healthy church is expositional preaching. It is not only the first mark; it is far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all of the others should follow.”[3] In another book, one author offers this statement, “expository preaching focuses predominately on the text(s) under consideration along with its (their) context(s).”[4]

Expositional (exposition and expository can be used interchangeably) preaching, then, takes the text, discusses the text as originally written, and then applies the text to the hearers hearts. This idea should come as no surprise, for it was the practice of the early church in the book of Acts. “Actually, that is exactly what we see the non-prophet, non-apostle, non-Son-of-God preachers doig throughout the Bible; they preach the Scriptures, explaining them and applying them to their listeners.”[5]

According to this definition (and example in Scripture), preaching that does not develop from, expound upon, and apply to the listens from the Bible is not expositional preaching. We can all think of excellent story tellers, illustrators, and reference-connectors. These, however, are not demonstrations of expositional preaching.

A church that is healthy is a church that regularly feeds on the Word of God. Forgive me for this lengthy quote, but Dever helps us see why expositional preaching should be the norm of the church. He writes,

“Preaching should always (or almost always) be expositional because the Word of God should be at its center, directing it. In fact, churches should have the Word at their center, directing them. God has chosen to use His Word to bring life. That’s the pattern that we see in Scripture and in history. His Word is How own chosen instrument for bringing life.”[6]

Expositional (or, expository) preaching should be a mark of the church. Why? The importance of the Word of God is written so frequently throughout the Scriptures that it would be an enormous task to examine them all. However, one passage in particular comes to mind: Psalm 1.

We have looked at this psalm in a previous post, but this psalm presents a wonderful picture of the importance of the Word of God.

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of the sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not whither. In all that he does, he prospers.

The Word of God has incredible (and eternal) benefits. Why would the church not want to hear it expounded? As we seek to develop into a healthy church, let us desire and require expositional preaching.


[1] Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).

[2] Mark  Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church New Expanded Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 35-55.

[3] Dever, 9 Marks, 39.

[4] Richard L. Mayhue, “Rediscovering Expository Preaching,” in John MacArthur and the Master’s Seminary Faculty, Rediscovering Expository Preaching: Balancing the Science and Art of Biblical Exposition (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 1992), 9.

[5] Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert, Preach: Theology Meets Practice (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 40.

[6] Dever, 9 Marks, 42.

What is a healthy church?

We enter this new year with a question of enormous importance, “What is a healthy church?” I find it interesting that we begin this year discussing the health of the church, considering the current pandemic afflicting the entire globe.

More than ever, human beings are concerned with health, and rightly so. Given the importance of a healthy life style, both for the present and the future, human beings should be concerned about their physical health. The Christian, more than others, knows that the Scriptures describe their bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 6:19, NIV) In the context, Paul is addressing sexual immorality, but no doubt this temple-body motif embraces physical well-being.

The fitness, supplement, and general health industries are booming with business. In particular, as we are at the beginning of January, many individuals have made resolutions to do things differently. These resolutions are often tied to physical health.

“What does this have to do with the church?” you may ask. While physical health is important and should be protected (see Ex. 20:13 for God’s estimation of the value of life), we must not neglect the health of our churches.

Our churches need to be healthy. We should, as Christians, be concerned about the health and wellbeing of our church as much as (or more) our physical health. The question is, “What is a healthy church?” This implies that there are unhealthy churches. Perhaps a contrast will help provide a better context in which to discuss a healthy church.

An unhealthy church is a church that is not reflecting the image of the Savior. This can be observed in a variety of ways. Authoritarian leadership, careless members, unregenerate membership, failure to preach and teach the Scriptures, any abuse (sexual, physical, or spiritual), are all manifestations of unhealthy churches. We could list many more, unfortunately. One of the reasons churches are unhealthy, and perhaps the main reason, is due to the fact that the church is made up of sinners. We often forget this, but its true. However, another factor to consider, and one that will make up the majority of this series of posts, is that the church is unhealthy because she has largely neglected the Scriptures.

As scientists learn more about the human body and a healthy lifestyle, they are increasingly discovering that the basics are vitally important. These foundational aspects include a proper diet and exercise routine, 7-8 hours of sleep, and mental health. This provides us with a wonderful physical representation of a spiritual truth. There are basics to being a healthy church.

In the following posts, we will look at these basics of a health church, what has historically been referred to as “marks.”[1] Mark Dever, a historian and pastor, has written a book entitled 9 Marks of a Healthy Church.[2] This book will serve as our guide discussing what a healthy church looks like. If you are able to, I would encourage you to pick up a copy. While it may be deeper than some of you are familiar, I think it will help form a biblical view of the church. This will, then, enable us to be a healthier church, and this is all for the glory of God (see 1 Cor. 10:31; Eph. 1:3-14).


[1] Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church: New Expanded Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 21-24.

[2] Ibid.

The Ancient and Modern Church

The below post was for an assignment regarding the separation engaged in by the ancient church. To what extent should a church separate from certain practices? Is there anything in culture a Christian abstain from? Please share your thoughts below!

Separation Based on Acceptance

When Constantine granted freedom to the Christian religion, many people would have rejoiced. The terrible persecutions ended, and now practicing Christians could enjoy open worship of God.[1] Austin notes the detrimental effect Constantine’s decision had on the church, “While Christianity converted the world, the world also converted Christianity. The natural impulses of pagan humanity were openly displayed among professing Christians. Doubtless tens of thousands had followed their emperor into the fold of the church without ever experiencing true regeneration or new birth.”[2] Because Christianity was legal, everyone wanted to join. Whereas the illegal religion was once looked upon as a blessed protection, it was now enjoyed by all.[3]

There is a similarity between the legalization of Christianity in ancient Rome and the once, wide-acceptance of Christianity in the United States. Though there is a decline at the moment, there are cultural benefits to “being Christian.”[4] One might place their involvement in a leadership position in a youth group on a resume. One may say that he is a Christian in order to be well received at work.[5] However, these people may not be true Christians. They reject the commandments of God and live as if He does not exist.[6] The Ancient Church would have rejected the inclusion of these professed believers, individuals who may look and act the part but not truly be Christians.

Separation Based on Culture

The early church received persecution for many reasons, but one of the reasons for their persecution was their refusal to engage in the cultural norms of the day. One group of authors note, “Christians gathered in private, and their exclusive monotheism compelled them to refuse all participation in pagan religious observances….they were marked out as a small group of willful dissenters from the very basis of communal life.”[7] Roman culture was anything but Christian.[8] The early Christians, then, separated from the social norms of the day.[9] They separated from the culture, though it cost them everything.[10]

The modern church, however, has allowed much of the American culture to infiltrate and devastate the church. Views of music, dress, and personal sanctification are cast aside in order to “by all means save some.”[11] The Ancient Church would separate from the culture, not embrace it.

Separation Based on Methodology

The Ancient Church experienced a traumatic event in AD 313. The Edict of Milan provided unparalleled freedom to the Christians, in addition to many financial and political advancements.[12] This changed everything. One group of writes discuss this monumental shift, “Thus the church passed from persecution to privilege. In an amazingly short time, its prospects changed completely. After centuries as a counter-culture movement, the church had to learn how to deal with power.”[13] There were many advantages to becoming a Christian after the Edict of Milan.[14] The Church, then, was able to utilize many methods (including financial gain) to gather people into her membership. The Ancient Church, no doubt, rejected these underhanded methods, ultimately bringing further persecution.[15]

The modern church would do well to follow their example. The variety of unbiblical and downright sinful methods utilized in churches today is sickening.[16] The Ancient Church would have separated from this, following Paul’s example of “preach[ing] Christ crucified.”[17]

 

[1] This is a highly simplified description of the events. For more information, see Bill Austin, Austin’s Topical History of Christianity (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1983), 85-93.

[2] Austin, Austin’s Topical History, 90.

[3] “Rome, the imperial order, was perceived not as the real source of the evil by which Christians were afflicted but rather as a power which, in God’s providence, kept things from getting much worse—and this was a judgment which, no doubt in a very rough way, reflected the actual state of affairs.” Williston Walker, Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, and Robert T. Handy, A History of the Christian Church 4th Edition (New York, NY: Scribener’s Sons, 1985), 53.

[4] David Kinnaman, UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007.

[5] This is the idea that Mark Dever discusses briefly in, Mark Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 14-16.

[6] For a deeper treatment of this, see John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith? Revise & Expanded Anniversary Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 9-11.

[7] Walker, et. al, History of the Christian Church, 51.

[8] Cynthia Long Westfall, “Roman Religions and the Imperial Cult,” Edited by John D. Barry, David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder, The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[9] Jonathan Hill, Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 54-57.

[10] J. Hebert Kane notes the differences between Christian and Roman culture, and the cost of following Christ. See J. Herbert Kane, A Concise History of the Christian World Mission: A Panoramic View of Missions from Pentecost to the Present Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book, 1982),24-33.

[11] 1 Corinthians 9:22, KJV.

[12] Hill, Handbook to the Christian Church, 74-77.

[13] A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang, and Randy Petersen, The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book, 1998), 34.

[14] Walker, et. al, History of the Christian, 129-130.

[15] The space does not allow a full discussion on this topic. The reader should consult the following materials for additional information: Walker, et. al, History of the Christian, 130-131; William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996); and Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists: New and Illustrated Edition Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication, 1958)

[16] For one example, see Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Megachurch pastor Steven Furtick’s ‘spontaneous baptisms’ not so spontaneous,” Religious News Service (24 February 2014, https://religionnews.com/2014/02/24/megachurch-pastor-steven-furticks-spontaneous-baptisms-spontaneous/ accessed 30 November 2018).

[17] 1 Corinthians 1:23, KJV.

 

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash

“Do I believe?”

(Photo by adam morse on Unsplash)

In Michael Lawrence’s book, Conversion: How God Creates a People, the question, “Do I believe?” comes up. This is certainly a question we should all ask, and frequently (see 2 Corinthians 13:5). The Church faces a danger in her presentation of the Gospel. At times we present Christ as one choice among many, a relativistic mentality in which one chooses based upon his or her own preference. In this case, it is like choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream. While others present following Jesus as a mere reciting of a prayer. If you pray, “God, I know I am a sinner. I know Christ died for me. I believe.” then you are right on your way to heaven! It does not matter if you actually believe it. You said the prayer!

Of course, these two are not the only ways in which we skew what conversion is, and Lawrence notes those throughout his book. However, in his chapter titled, Assess Before You Assure, he offers eight ways in which the Church can help answer the question, “Do I believe?”

  1. “First, slow the membership process down.”This one is tough, especially for pastors. Imagine telling someone who wants to join your church, “Wait, let’s have a conversation and see what God is doing in your life.” His numbers would decrease! Yet, as Lawrence writes, “It shouldn’t be hard to join a church, but unlike the churches I grew up in, you shouldn’t be able to join the first Sunday you visit.” (Lawrence, 104)If we take the time to get to know one another, we may actually learn that one’s understanding of the Gospel is inaccurate. We may learn that they are able to articulate the Gospel, but their life does not match it. Hopefully, however, we learn that they know the Gospel and live by it, which will help confirm, in their own heart and mind, the affirmative answer to our question.
  2. “Second, have pastors or elders conduct membership interviews.”This is an area that I believe many churches could benefit. God gave the church pastor-teachers for several reasons. Ephesians 4:12-16 gives a good overview:“to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (ESV)One way to help answer the question, “Do I believe?” is to be interviewed by an elder or pastor. They are gifted in the areas of biblical teaching and insight, maintain high moral character (through the grace of God, of course), and are given by God for the very task of answering this question (among other duties). In the churches of the United States, we are too easily satisfied with a quick conversation that goes something like this:


    1. Pastor: So, why have you come forward?
    2. Prospective member: I want to join the church.
    3. Pastor: Sounds great! Have you accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior?
    4. Prospective member: Yes I did when I was a kid!
    5. Pastor: Amazing. Welcome to the church!


Of course, this is a simplification. However, I do not believe its too far off. Lawrence notes, “The point is to take the time to hear a person’s story in safety. There’s only so much you can learn in the hallway after church.” (Lawrence, 105) A discussion with an elder or pastor will help confirm one’s conversion, or it will open the door to discussion what conversion really is. Either way, the pastor-teacher is able to help develop the “knowledge of the Son of God” in the life of that individual (Ephesians 4:13).

 

  1. “Third, reconsider your practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”The Scriptures have much to say on these two ordinances. I believe the Church, in general, has reacted toward the Catholic understanding of sacraments too much. For example, when someone is baptized we stress that it is merely symbolic, it just represents the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Or take the Eucharist. We are simply doing this “in remembrance” of Him. We have down played their worth and benefit in order to avoid a wrong understanding. It is a good motive, but one that needs a little correcting. I believe Michael Lawrence’s words are best: “Other than on the missions frontier, as with the Ethiopian eunuch, the apostles had no category for a baptized Christian who wasn’t part of a local church. Devote time in the morning service to hear baptismal testimonies—not of prayers prayed, but of lives changed. When it comes to the Lord’s Super, don’t say, ‘The Tables are open.’ Take time to explain to each other who should participate in the Supper: baptized members of gospel-preaching local churches.” (Lawrence, 105)

We will save the other five for another post. Might I encourage you to ask yourself, “Do I believe?” One assistance is the local church. Are you a part of believers? Have you covenanted together? Perhaps you have never experience conversion. I would love to help you answer the question, “Do I believe?”

 

You can check on the book Conversion: How God Creates a People by Michael Lawrence here.